Strategic Implications of an Open Arctic

By Eddie Walsh

The clouds begin to thin over the Arctic Ocean Aug. 19, 2009.

Increased attention for the Arctic is changing strategic dynamics for countries in the Pacific. Source: U.S. Geological Survey's flickr photostream used under a creative commons license.

[Editor’s Note: The following is the first post in a series on the Strategic Implications of an Open Arctic for the Pacific.]

Norwegian Roald Amundsen is remembered as one of the world’s great explorers. His accomplishments include reaching both the North and South Poles and being the first to sail through the Northwest Passage. Remarkably, these feats were achieved in the early-1900s, long before the age of Gore-Tex® and modern survival gear.

After all of his great adventures, Amundsen was lost not on expedition but rather conducting a rescue mission to save a friend in the Arctic. His death reflects the harsh reality of life in the High North. This is not lost on Ambassador Wegger Chr. Strommen of the Kingdom of Norway, when he pulls down an inflatable globe, points to the Arctic, and stresses, “These are extreme conditions. These are not the tropics. You have to use military assets and military equipped platforms to have any kind of presence for search and rescue.” In this respect, not a lot has changed since Amundsen’s days. But, what has changed is that the ice is melting and Arctic sea lanes are opening. This has profound strategic repercussions for the eight member states of the Arctic Council.

Eddie Walsh, a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, therefore sat down with Ambassador Strommen to discuss his views on the political, economic, and environmental implications of an open Arctic, both for the Arctic-Pacific region and the rest of the world.

The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs has said that the Arctic is the most important strategic priority of Norwegian foreign policy. What is meant by this statement and what are the implications for Norwegian foreign policy outside of the Arctic?

The Arctic is our identity. Norwegian territory is only 16% is land. The rest is water. We are basically a water country with a small land mass and large continental shelf dotted with islands. And, most of these territories are to the North. Our people are also a coastal people. Over 90% of our citizens live along the coast and they are pretty evenly dispersed. Roughly 500,000 live in the North.  So, the North is our home turf. It’s where we make our living. If you look at what pays for my shirt and my tie, its oil, shipping, fisheries, and oil supply services. Our people have always depended on such maritime resources.

With respect to our foreign policy, our renewed focus on the North will not change our international commitments. It is clear that our defense budget has not gone down and we are fortunate to have a good economy right now. There should be sufficient resources for us to do our fair share of international operations, like Afghanistan, and look after our vast maritime territory in the North.

Some worry that rapid change in the Arctic will undermine peace and stability in the region. Arctic states appear to prefer the existing “multi-lateral, multi-stakeholder approach” to manage any disagreements but others argue for new institutions and mechanisms that are more inclusive of non-Arctic states. As the Arctic opens up, do you think the status quo can be maintained or will a new security architecture be required?

To be honest, people like to talk about Arctic security issues but very often it is not clear what they mean. More often than not, they are talking about safety or outstanding territorial disputes. But, I am sure the ones left will be resolved in the confines of international law. The international community shouldn’t be too concerned about the Russians planting a flag on the North Pole.

For many non-Arctic states, Arctic security is a new area although there have institutional arrangements in this area for centuries. With time, international support for these institutions will come. As the existing institutions, such as the Arctic Council, dig into the main security issues, like scientific research, search and rescue, and environmental concerns, and the international community sees how the issues are managed, there will be acceptance.

For example, there will clearly be a joint responsibility for anyone using Arctic commercial transportation routes. We need to make them safe and protect the environment. But, there are institutions for that. The IMO has been around for a long time. It would be ridiculous to take these issues away from them. They have been doing this everywhere else on the planet so they should be doing it in the Arctic. But, there are some particular concerns about that and we welcome discussing Chinese concerns on these things.

You mention the Arctic Council (AC) but as you know both UNCLOS and AC are expressly prohibited from discussing security issues. This is precisely why some argue for new institutions. Given the potential security concerns arising in the Arctic, don’t you think it is time then to reconsider the Arctic Council’s charter?

The framework for security cooperation is already there. It is fairly old and well-established. We have the institutions we need. The world doesn’t need new institutions. We should utilize the ones that we have and work through them. We don’t share the view that we need to clear the decks and start over again. Instead, the Arctic Council should expand its scope through new themes and allow in observers.

One of the countries who might wish to challenge the status quo in the Arctic is China. Clearly, as a non-Arctic state, it is difficult for them to advance their national interests in the region. What are your thoughts on how China can be properly accommodated in the Arctic?

When we think of China, we think about it as an Arctic issue. For Norway, China is not someplace you get to by sailing through the Suez Canal or around Africa. It is somewhere you get to by going over the top of the world. If you live in Africa, you may have a different geographic view. But, for us, our Asian Century will be over the top.

So, we welcome the Chinese concerns. They will be sending ships to the Arctic along with many others. In fact, we had commercial routes through the Arctic to China last summer. Issues such as maritime transportation will need to be the joint responsibility of everyone. If you are going to send a ship up there and be commercially active, your involvement is necessary.

We also have research facilities in the Arctic at 80 degrees, which is seriously to the North. We welcome others there for research. The Chinese, as well as the Americans and others, are already there. The scientific impact is huge. The Arctic is a laboratory for many things from temperature change to oceanic research. We certainly want more countries, including those from Asia, to be able to take advantage of Arctic research opportunities.

Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He is a non-resident fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum and founder of the AsiaPacific Reporting Blog. Follow you him on twitter: @AseanReporting


3 comments for “Strategic Implications of an Open Arctic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *